Beyond the Beyond: Roy Chapman Andrews in Mongolia
The July heat of Gobi Desert sweltered as Roy Chapman Andrews, often called the real life Indiana Jones, held a fossil that would forever change how we think about dinosaurs. As he squatted in the shadows of the sun-baked cliffs of Outer Mongolia's forbidding desert, Andrews felt a jolt of excitement. He held the find of a lifetime, one that could never have been anticipated in 1923, a time of jazz, flappers and frivolous living. It was only the second day of his second season in the land of Genghis Khan, but before summer's end he and his team would turn the science of paleontology on its head.
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Only the day before, he had left Peking and driven three cars and two trucks through the gates of the Great Wall. Heading southwest, Andrews and his team drove deep into the most bandit-infested, perilous region of the Gobi Desert. He had come not in search of dinosaurs but on an expedition to find the Missing Link. It was a task doomed to failure. But that failure would become Andrews' greatest success.
His boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn, then director of the American Museum of Natural History, believed that the fossil remains of man's earliest ancestors would inevitably be found in Central Asia. They were not. Andrews, a mammalogist and adventurer, never discovered the Missing Link or any remains of prehistoric man. But his dinosaur discoveries in the Gobi Desert catapulted him to international fame as the first superstar of paleontology.
The man who was arguably the inspiration for Indiana Jones began life in the most inauspicious circumstances. Roy Chapman Andrews came into this world on a bone-chilling January night in 1884. Roy spent his formative years with his sole sibling, an elder sister named Ethelyn May, in Beloit, Wisconsin, then a sleepy town of 6,000. Guns became a focal point of his childhood, one fostered by his father, Charles, a wholesaler of pharmaceuticals who doted on his only son. "The greatest event of my early life," Andrews wrote, "was when, on my ninth birthday, Father gave me a little single-barrel shotgun." An avid hunter, he armed himself with a three-dollar shotgun to bring down geese and deer. Hunting paved the way for Roy's lifelong fascination with the natural world. Always a quick study, Roy taught himself taxidermy and became the only person in Rock County with taxidermy skills. Always enterprising and opportunistic, he earned his first money from local hunters who happily paid to utilize his uncommon craft.
At Beloit College Roy's marks in composition were the highest ever given in the English Department. His literary flare would culminate in the publication of (at least) 23 books, over one hundred scientific papers and even a well-received 1950 novel called Quest in the Desert. If his writing was extemporary, his math was not and Roy later admitted that he "flunked [math exams] miserably."
When not pursing co-eds, Roy devoted his boundless energies to public speaking. "William Jennings Bryan spoke at Beloit [College], and I learned one of my first lessons in the technique of successful public speaking," he said. He noted how Bryan's timing and sense of humor won over hostile audiences. Later in life he would use Bryan's techniques and his own charisma to raise money for his expeditions.
Roy led a charmed life. As graduation neared he met a visiting lecturer named Dr. Edmund Otis Hovey, the curator of geology at the American Museum of Natural History. Roy went to Hovey's hotel and insisted the geologist meet him and view his collection of taxidermied heads mounted on the walls of Moran's, a nearby watering hole. Hovey was impressed and promised to mention Andrews to the Museum's director, biologist Hermon Carey Bumpus.
After graduating in 1906, he told his mother that he wanted "to go to New York and try to get into the Natural History Museum at once -- next week." He was only 22, fresh faced and full of confidence. Roy boarded the next train to the Big Apple and arrived the following morning. On July 6, he met with Bumpus who told him that there were no employment opportunities for him. Unfazed, Roy stood his ground. "I just want to work here. You have to have someone to clean the floors. Couldn't I do that?" Andrews started work for $40 a month scrubbing the floors of the Taxidermy Department, where his sculpting skills, a key component of the taxidermist's craft, segued into a challenging assignment constructing a mock-up of a whale and paved the way for an early career in cetacean biology. Always hard working and driven, Andrews earned a master's degree in mammalogy from Columbia University and studied medicine and anatomy.
Against all odds -- freezing weather and a lack of funds -- Roy recovered a whale skeleton from the shores of Long Island. Bumpus was impressed. The Museum soon sent Roy to Japanese whaling stations, where he mastered the language and formed a fascination with Asian culture that would color the rest of his life.
When Bumpus retired from the Museum in 1908, Roy soon bonded with the new director, paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, his most steadfast ally. Osborn believed that North America's extinct life had migrated from Central Asia. The steppes were the cradle of all evolution, including man, in Osborn's view. Convinced that an expedition to Outer Mongolia would uncover the Missing Link, Roy put forth a proposal that intrigued his new boss -- a decade of summer expeditions to the lawless wastes of Outer Mongolia.
Funding was a problem and a challenge Roy welcomed. "Money is the only obstacle," Osborn told him. "Of course, the Museum will do all it can, but getting most of the money will be up to you."
Roy was in his element. Raising $250,000 for an expedition whose outcome was uncertain was a hurdle Roy was determined to clear. Osborn took his young protégé under his wing and suggested he solicit contributions from New York's high rollers. An emboldened Andrews promptly called J.P. Morgan's office and talked his way into an appointment with America's leading financier. The following morning he showed up at Morgan's office, pitched his project and left with a $50,000 pledge in his pocket. Knowing that word of mouth would spread, he soon garnered additional donations from John D. Rockafeller and other members of New York's social elite. But he had not raised all the money he required. Using his oratorical skills and turning on his hyperbolic charm, Roy embarked on a seemingly endless round of dinner parties and speaking engagements to raise the $250,000 he needed. "Every week," he said, "I spoke at two or three club luncheons, and often lectured in the evening [to raise additional funds]."
With cash in hand, Roy sailed to China and arrived in Peking on a balmy mid-April afternoon. With a taste for high living, he leased a 161-room palace on Bowstring Street that belonged to a deposed Manchu prince. Roy was in his element. He embraced Peking, its culture and cuisine and set about learning Mandarin; he even acquired a smattering of Mongolian. In 1922, after preparations that include trips to Urga, the ramshackle Mongolian capital, Andrews was ready to find the Missing Link in the Gobi Desert. While man's earliest ancestor remained elusive, Roy and his multidisciplinary team made paleontological history. Among his discoveries were the largest mammalian carnivore to roam the earth (Andrewsarchus); the tallest mammalian herbivore ever discovered, a hornless rhino 12 feet taller than a giraffe (Indracotherium); and a hornless ancestor of Triceratops named after the team leader (Protoceratops andrewsi).
Roy had only scratched the surface. His discoveries during the seminal 1923 summer season would make him the premier Jazz Age science celebrity, his status rivaled only by Albert Einstein and Howard Carter.
With his flare for showmanship, Roy looked the part of a silent movie adventurer. Clad in knee-high boots over jodhpurs and sporting a floppy hat, Roy never ventured into the Gobi Desert without his a 6.5mm Mannlicher rifle and .38 Colt sidearm. It was an image Andrews carefully cultivated. But the image was built on Roy's real-life character as a man of grit and determination who neither sought danger nor shied away from it. On a blistering Gobi day, he strayed into a desolate region near the Chinese border. A week previously Mongolian brigands had cornered and robbed a troop of Russians. Many lives were lost. Roy spotted the bandits at the bottom of a hill slinging their rifles and ready for action. They got it. Roy threw his Fulton truck into gear and charged. Driving flat out and yelling atop his lungs, Roy opened fire. The bandits' ponies took fright. Fearing for their lives at the hands of the reckless White Devil, the bandits turned tail and fled.
Bandits were not the only dangers Roy faced. Called "dust devils" by Roy's colorful team, the Gobi's violent sandstorms howled at night and blew with enough force to uproot tents and blast the skin off one's back. To Roy, the inhospitable climes of the Gobi Desert -- the searing noonday heat and the icy night winds -- were the least of his worries.
Like the cinematic hero he inspired, Roy hated snakes.
"I dislike reptiles intensely," he said. "My dislike isn't fear. It is an instinctive loathing." Unfortunately for Roy, the Gobi Desert is infested with deadly pit vipers. One chilly evening the camp became infiltrated with vipers seeking shelter from the wind. Attracted by the team's fires, the vipers slithered into the camp site en masse. That night, the team killed forty-seven vipers, some found their way into shoes and beds.
Although Roy had brought along a surgeon, viper
antivenom was unknown in the Jazz Age and the risk of being bitten was very real. Fortunately, the only one bitten was Wolf, Andrews' pet Alsatian, but after thirty-six hours of sheer misery, the dog (later incarnated as a character in Roy's 1950 novel, Quest in the Desert) recovered. The expedition packed up their tents and Roy bid an unfond farewell to the place he called Viper Camp.
After the breakthrough discoveries of Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Marsh in the 19th century, American paleontology lost much of its shine. Prior to Roy's 1923 season, science was in the dark about how dinosaurs reproduced and raised their young. Roy changed all that. One afternoon he discovered and correctly identified dinosaur eggs. But there was a problem. He assumed the eggs belonged to Protoceratops but later analysis would show that the finds were the spawn of a small previously unknown predator called Oviraptor ("Egg Thief." ), discovered by Roy's tech George Olson. "Almost certainly,' Andrews wrote, "these were the first dinosaur eggs ever seen by modern human eyes ...Two of them, broken in half, showed the white bones of unhatched baby dinosaurs. We had discovered the first [dinosaur egg] specimens known to science."
Oviraptor is a misleading name in light of the Jurassic Park movies that made raptor a household word. Roy's find was not a true raptor. It was not member of the domeosauridae (raptor) family but a unique, wonderfully idiosyncratic creature that belonged to a family and genus of its own. The "raptor" was not raiding Protoceratops eggs but protecting its own nest when it met its demise. In the Roaring Twenties, paleontologists believed that nurturing behavior was far too complex for so-called primitive dinosaurs. Roy, an outsider and enfant terribe, proved that paleontological orthodoxy had got it wrong.
Roy's close friend during the 1923 season was paleontologist Walter Granger, a New Englander with a dry, acerbic sense of humor. Together the two men would rewrite the history of life on earth. Science had long maintained that mammals evolved after the demise of the dinosaurs. No small, furry and puny creature could survive in a world dominated by fierce reptiles. It was a logical and reasonable belief. But wrong.
The most fecund area of the Gobi Desert was a reddish sandstone formation Roy called the Flaming Cliffs of Shabarakh Usu, Mongolia's Jurassic Park. While scouting, Granger came upon a small, seemingly insignificant fossil dating from the Late Cretaceous, an era dominated by T-rex and his Mongolian cousin Tarbosaurus. It was not a fragmentary remnant of a lumbering dinosaur or a speedy predator but the skull of a mammal no larger than a shrew. At just over an inch long it was hardly spectacular. But the sediments in which it was found told another story. Here was proof positive that mammals had lived and even thrived during the dinosaurs' reign, a find that upset the paleontological apple cart with the discovery of the proverbial "mouse that roared."
Roy's luck had yet to fully run its course. The team's paleontological tech, Peter C. Kaisen, found the skull of a small, turkey-size dinosaur, a previously unknown and fearsome predator. Nearby he unearthed the creature's sickle-shaped toe claw, a weapon to slash and disembowel its unfortunate prey. The small dinosaur, later named Velociraptor mongoliensis ("Mongolian speedy thief"), was perhaps the most efficient and fearsome killing machine ever to terrorize the planet. With hind legs build for speed and a rudder-like tail reinforced with rigid sinews, Velociraptor was a small but devastating predator that slashed its prey to death, a creature paleontologist Bob Bakker called the roadrunner from hell.
Roy's Asia days were not always a round of hardships and toil or groundbreaking discoveries. As his fame spread, he acquired an ever-widening circle of admirers back home and among Peking's lively, often frivolous ex-pats. Visited by luminaries such as Kermit Roosevelt and Noel Coward, Roy was greatly admired by silent star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. who was featured on the cover of the October 29, 1923 issue of Time magazine. In 1941 Roy become told Roy that he "simulated on screen what [Roy] did in real life." Such was his fame that he became the star of a True Comics feature called Roy Chapman Andrews the Modern Dragon Hunter and later, in 1944, he returned to comic book stardom as Andrews of Asia.
Roy's days of adventure and daring-do came to a sudden end. The watershed year of 1929 ushered in a slew of changes, none for the best. After the Soviet Union annexed Mongolia, it become impossible for Andrews to secure permits to continue his explorations. His Asia days were over. His troubles were only just beginning. Back in New York, the stock market crash decimated his wealth. And the onset of middle age marked the end of a spirited era of exploration and high living. Strapped for cash, Roy accepted the directorship of the American Museum, a task for which he was ill-suited. After eight tedious years of deskwork, Roy threw in the towel and moved to a farm in Connecticut, returning to a rural life of fishing and hunting.
As World War II raged, he came out of retirement to serve as an advisor on desert warfare to General George C. Patton. He authored books and numerous scientific papers but the longing for a more spirited way of life remained. "Always there has been adventure just around the corner -- and the world is full of corners," he wrote. As the years slipped away, those corners grew narrower and fewer, but his memories of Outer Mongolia and the discoveries of his 1923 season never left him. Those memories spilled onto the pages of his books and memoirs. During his silver years, Roy filled his new home in Carmel Valley, California with exquisite Chinese artifacts that were recently auctioned for more than three million dollars.
As he entered his seventh decade, Roy's health began to decline. He had been an inveterate smoker, a habit acquired while studying anatomy at Columbia University. Unable to tolerate the odors associated with human dissection, he began to smoke to camouflage the smell.
Smoking soon became a habit he never broke and sadly his final years were plagued by heart disease and cancer.
Roy Chapman Andrews died of a massive heart attack on a Friday afternoon on March 11, 1960. His passing was largely ignored by the American Museum of Natural History, an institution that would not have been in the forefront of Roaring Twenties paleontology without Andrews' vision and pioneering spirit. In recent years, Roy's standing with the American Museum has been restored and he has regained some of his former prominence with the public. Many of his books have been reissued to an appreciative and enthusiastic new readership. Today many observers and film-goers have linked Roy's person and persona with the celluloid hero Indiana Jones, but Roy's real life deeds overshadow both his legend and that of his cinematic doppelganger.
Of all his accomplishments, none meant more to him than the Central Asian Expedition of 1923. "If I've left anything worthwhile to posterity," he told a reporter in his later years, "it is the legacy of my Gobi journeys. I hope that is the yardstick by which my success or failure in life will be judged."